Spend first; evaluate later: the mantra of many California politicians, including appointed bureaucrats – some charged with responsibilities that significantly affect our everyday lives.
As Ron Galperin’s recent audit of the city’s water conservation rebate programs illustrates, it is easy to sell a bill of goods to an unsuspecting public; in this case, under the guise of water conservation.
Who doesn’t want to save water?
For the record, my wife and I let our back lawn die and recently replaced it with hardscape and drought-resistant plants. The rebate program was already winding down and, since we allowed the lawn to die, the project would not have qualified .
Several years before, we replaced the parkway section of the front lawn with similar plants – but that was before the rebate.
We are glad we did. Almost no water from our irrigation flows into the street. And we like the look. We would do it again with or without a rebate.
Some of the savings goes to keeping our property’s trees adequately watered and healthy. By contrast, the city cut way back on watering the lawn at the local park. The result not only converted play areas into dust bowls, but now the trees are dying. Two were so weakened, they came down in the winds that ravaged the area the other week.
The fact of the matter is, many home and commercial property owners would have altered their landscaping or conserved to save money without a rebate – and many did.
According to the audit report, DWP spent $65 million in rebates over the last two years to save a half-gallon of water per person daily. But Angelenos voluntarily saved 22 gallons per day at a cost to the utility of nothing.
Let’s give a pat on the back to the city and the DWP for emphasizing the severity of the drought, but higher water costs had much to do with the reduction in use.
Regardless of whether conservation resulted from rebates or cost-induced conservation, it all pales in comparison to the potential relief from capturing runoff – 10 billion gallons of it in a single storm. Harnessing just a fraction of the volume throughout the year would not only be cost effective, but would make all other incentive programs a mere drop in the bucket by comparison.
The estimated cost of capturing an acre-foot of runoff amounts to $0.003 per gallon (326,000 gallons per acre-foot at a cost ranging from $600 to $1100 per acre-foot. I assumed $1,000 in my calculation).
The DWP is eyeing such a plan, but has allowed itself to be distracted by far less effective measures.
Turf removal rebates are expected to save 6.5 billion gallons over a useful life of 10 years, or 650 million annually. The total cost of the program was $18 million, which equates to $0.03 per gallon per year and $0.003 over the relatively short useful life of 10 years.
While the cost of turf rebates appears to be the same as the cost per gallon from controlling runoff, keep in mind that the latter produces benefits well beyond 10 years….meaning many billions of gallons more saved over time.
Understandably, economies of scale would be necessary to achieve a low unit cost for runoff reclamation, which is why I applied the high end of the cost range to my calculations. But even pilot programs to capture a portion of the copious flow to the ocean would put us on the path to tapping in to all of the water we will ever need. Just as a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, $65 million in rebate money would have amounted to quite a few steps towards the critical objective of capturing more runoff.
It makes sense to focus on the long-term, big savings than the feel-good measures, such as turf and other rebates that are destroying our urban forest and green space, replacing it with a landscape only Turf Terminators or Fred Flintstone could appreciate.
Galperin might be the most sensible official in the city.
As he stated in his letter accompanying the audit report: “If money is no object, turf replacement rebates are a relatively expedient way to save water, but, of course, money is an object.”
He went on to say,“Our city’s water conservation efforts aren’t just about reacting to the current crisis, but rather changing the way we think about water.”
That, my friends, is taking a long-range view of a long-term structural challenge. That’s the way it should be.
When it comes to expanding water resources, we must look beyond piecemeal, myopic programs; instead focus on strategies which deliver a reliable supply for generations. Let’s not waste money on quick fixes with limited returns.